Paying for Auschwitz

By Roger Rosenblatt Time, April 12,1999

AFTER MY GREAT UNCLE SURVIVED AUSCHWITZ AND CAME to America in the late 1940s, he got a job selling shoes in Braintree, Mass. He had been a lawyer in Germany, and when the owner of the shoe shop saw that his new sales­man was able and educated, he offered him the position of store manager. But my great uncle declined. He said it was enough for him to be in America and to be able to sell shoes. And so he did, until the day he died.

I thought of him last week when people were comparing the mass murders in Kosovo to the Holocaust how inept the comparisons were, vile as Slobodan Milosevic is. The Holo­caust has no analog; this is why, almost 60 years after the fact, it is still impossible to fit it into the rest of history.

My great uncle also came to mind when I read a recent story about the release of docu­ments by Deutsche Bank A.G., Germany's biggest bank, that showed it had helped finance the building of Auschwitz. Deutsche Bank produced this information in connection with its negotiations with Holocaust survivors who are suing the bank. Deutsche Bank thus joined such other European institutions facing lawsuits as Sie­mens, I.G. Farben and the banks of Austria and Switzerland. The Swiss banks have already agreed to pay $1.25 billion in claims over gold deposits, and Deutsche Bank may end up paying much more.

This is what the Holocaust seems to have come to an ex­change of dollars for unspeakable suffering and loss, and a shared pretense that money is an instrument of justice. In cases where restitution is at issue the return of artworks, homes and proper­ty to their rightful owners, for instance financial repayment may come close to settling the score; but even there, no compensation would take account of what it cost to be dragged away from one's home or to have had one's beloved possessions seized by the state.

In cases where companies like Volkswagen, Krupp and Daimler Benz are being sued for back wages for using slave la­bor during the war, people are asking to be compensated for work they would never have done willingly in the first place; no justice there. As for repayment for pain, how does that work? Stolen property may be returned, but how would a young banker in modern Germany have compensated my great uncle for the loss of his family, his ambition and his spirit?

This point is being made obliquely by Jewish groups and in­dividuals who abjure these offers of institutional compensation and even gently condemn those whose accept them. In TIME last December, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti­Defamation League, himself a Holocaust survivor, said those "who have claims deserve to bring them forward, but its at a heavy price. The next generation will believe it’s all about mon­ey." Yet the plain, if unsatisfactory, truth is that money is the most tangible instrument of compensation that society has at its dis­posal. Verbal apologies have been proffered in recent years by in­stitutions, and by such nations as France and Poland, but sincere as they may be, they leave no evidence of penalty. Dollars, at least, may pay for a child's education, a mortgage, an operation, a coat.

But it is all so helpless and airless because, of course, the Holocaust cannot be compensated for. Not only does money not serve; no form of justice serves. Lawrence Langer says it just right in his new book, Preempting the Holocaust: "Here injus­tice prevails." Injustice wins. Thus the general feeling of emp­tiness, of the absence of retribution, at the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1962, and even at the Nuremberg trials, where "war crimes" were supposed to find a fitting punish­ment. There are no moral equiva­lents. One might have hanged Himmler, Goebbels, Goring, Hit­let himself hanged them in a row and left their corpses to rot in public view, and still all one would have felt was a pitiless vacancy.

Deutsche Bank provided a line of credit to a small company that built the walls, bridges, floors and roofs of Auschwitz. One imagines the bill for the construction of such things: walls, bridges, floors and roofs, $6 million; tow­ers and searchlights, $4 million; wire fences, dogs and guns, $2 million; showers, $3 million; ovens, $12 million. Now one imagines a bill presented by the survivors consisting of the same items with some additional incidental charges for med­ical experimentation and the extraction of teeth. Naturally, to­day's bill would have to be adjusted for 1990s dollars. The mere image of it sinks the heart.

Money, the love of which used to be thought of as the root of all evil, is supposed to become the offsetting factor for evil, but who believes it? Payers and payees alike are powerless, stu­pefied. The Holocaust not only lies beyond compensation; it also lies beyond explanation, reconciliation, sentiment, for­giveness, redemption or any of the mechanisms by which peo­ple attempt to set wrong things right. In a way, that fact is as much a sign of its unique enormity as the monstrosity itself. All moral thought is grounded in the possibility of correction. Yet here is a wrong that will never be set right, and people are left groping for something to take the place of the irreplaceable.

Picture my great uncle sitting across the table from a 40­year old vice president of Deutsche Bank. The man asks him,

"What do I owe you?"